Just seeing the word "buffet" in a restaurant's name is enough to send most foodies scurrying away, evoking visions of a horde of diners pawing at trays of microwaved food purchased at a warehouse club store.
You'll still find a horde at Santo's Modern American Buffet and Sushi in Coconut Creek, but foodies need not fear. This new restaurant brings much-needed class and spunk to the buffet genre, with its eclectic offerings, slick ambiance and snappy service.
For a reasonable $19.95 at dinner, you'll get all-you-can-eat access to 25 or more types of sushi, a selection of Chinese-American favorites, a well-stocked raw bar, a sprinkling of Italian dishes, three types of ceviche, a mixed-meat grill and one of the best dessert sections this recovering buffetgoer has sampled. Lunch costs $12.25, and prices are discounted by age. Kids up to 3 years old eat for free, ages 4 to 7 are charged one-third the price, and ages 8 to 12 get a half-price meal.
Santo's offers all the trappings of typical restaurant service, except for a server bringing you a plate — not that we minded, thanks to the instant gratification of eating within minutes of being seated. Here, there's no trying to flag down one server who is racing to clean 10 tables. Instead, drinks are refilled quickly. Used plates are snapped up in seconds. Custom preparations are offered for sushi, the raw bar and desserts. While we had a longer-than-usual wait for a table thanks to a group of 40 crashers, one of the owners offered us a hand-picked selection of sushi to keep us interested and happy.
The restaurant's decor of polished black stone, recessed lighting and white furniture gives it a modern vibe. On the southern side of the restaurant are high-top tables, giving this area the feel of a trendy bar. On the opposite side are more traditional booths and square tables nicely spaced out for groups and families who want to make repeat trips for seconds (and thirds and fourths).
If you can't get over the fact that you've actually set foot in a buffet, well, you need to relax with some sake flights. For $6, you get a choice of three sakes from a list that includes Ty Ku coconut nigori sake, Hana lychee sake and Morimoto Junmai Classic, among others.
To make the visit to Santo's truly worthwhile, it helps to be an indecisive sushi lover. We were pleased with the huge selection, as well as the solid ingredients and preparation. Highlights include the Manhattan roll with salmon, escolar, cream cheese, avocado and a crunchy exterior; a roll topped with chunks of banana; the rainbow roll with salmon, tuna and avocado wrapped on the outside for a colorful display; the vegetarian roll with red pepper, cream cheese, tofu, mango and seaweed salad; and the dragon roll with shrimp tempura. You'll also find the usual suspects: California rolls, Alaskan rolls, spicy tuna rolls, sashimi and so on. If you don't see what you want, the restaurant seems more than happy to whip up a custom roll. Just to test that theory, I was tempted to ask for a chocolate mousse, ceviche and fried mac and cheese roll.
Having our stomachs sufficiently distended by the sushi, we made our way to the rest of the buffet, and found a nice raw bar with snow crab, shrimp cocktail, oysters, mussels and clams. Ask your server about getting that crab steamed with melted butter on the side. You'll also get to try three ceviches: Mexican shellfish, a classic Peruvian-style ceviche and a mango shrimp ceviche that pleased us with its mild fruit flavor. Try some of the carpaccio while you're there.
Just as we finally had a hankering for something hot, we were disheartened by the weak offerings from the meat grill. While nobody was expecting steakhouse-quality cuts at a buffet, the much-lauded prime rib consisted of skinny strips of beef that had the flavor torched out of them. While you'll do well to just skip the steak, you will find some nice sausages, grilled sliced vegetables and slightly blackened corn on the cob.
Moving along, we got to the fun, wacky part: an assortment of Chinese, American, Italian and what a discerning diner might call "kid food" (though the adults help themselves liberally). As a rule, you won't go wrong eating a crustacean here. By unanimous vote at our table, the favorite item from the buffet was the Grand Marnier shrimp, coated in a rich, slightly sweet mayonnaise-based sauce. Nearby, the fried, cheese-encrusted chicken cutlets had us taking extra bites. You'll also want to give the barbecue ribs and spare ribs a go. If you like Vietnamese food, you'll enjoy the rich, cilantro-infused spare ribs.
The Chinese-American offerings of lo mein, chicken fried rice and sweet-and-sour pineapple chicken are what you'd expect at a Chinese restaurant. Toward the end of the buffet is an assortment of guilty pleasures, including pork dumplings, fried mac and cheese, shrimp tempura, sweet chili wings and spring rolls.
At this point, we were slumping into our seats in a hushed, satisfying stupor. Our intrepid crew recovered and ventured on to sample the shot-size desserts. Before you grab anything, however, ask your server for a helping of freshly fried Thai doughnuts. You will ignore the ones at the buffet. Those cold doughnuts are like an obscenity compared to the hot, airy ones that are served with a side of vanilla creme. If doughnuts aren't your thing, go for the succulent chocolate mousse, the creamy tiramisu or the little brownie squares. There's also a freezer of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream to pair with everything.
Gauging by the size of the crowd and the restaurant's only having been open for several months, it seems Santo's is finding a market for its hip yet accessible buffet concept. We vowed to return with our family of picky eaters. The highbrow members will be satisfied by the eclectic piles of sushi, and the philistines can pick clean the tray of fried mac and cheese.
Santo's Modern American Buffet and Sushi
4690 N. State Road 7, Suite 106, Coconut Creek
Cuisine: American, buffet, sushi, Chinese
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. daily
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, kid-friendly items
Wheelchair accessible: Yes